Malcolm argues for a shift in the burden of evidence in cases of sexual crimes
Debate on Scotland's Future Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
I have always thought that the Deputy First Minister is a superb debater and today she spoke with her usual forcefulness and style, but her speech - as were those of her colleagues - was constructed from building blocks of fantasy: fantasy about Labour’s position on these matters; fantasy about the world of limitless resources that she would rather have than the world of declining resources that we live in; and fantasy about Scandinavian welfare with Romney-type tax cuts, which is her prospectus for an independent Scotland.

The first mistake about Labour that she made was to say that we broke our promise on the council tax. We made it absolutely clear in the run-up to the election 18 months ago that we supported the council tax freeze for two years. As far as I know, this is the second year of the parliamentary session, so let us hear no more such accusations.

The second mistake about Labour that she made - one that was also made by all the other SNP speakers - was to say that we are against universal provision. Of course we are not. We created the welfare state, but the welfare state has always been a combination of universal and targeted provision, and the principle of universality has always been applied on a case-by-case basis.

Mark McDonald:
Mr Chisholm might not wish to hear this, but I have had a great deal of respect for him as a politician ever since he resigned from Tony Blair’s Government over a cut to benefits for single parents. Should those same single parents be forced to go through the ignominy of means testing for some of the benefits that this Government is providing to them for free?

Malcolm Chisholm:
If Mark McDonald had thought before he made that intervention, he would have realised that single parents benefited very greatly from the measures that the Labour Government introduced in a targeted way through tax credits and childcare tax credits.

I think that, in their heart of hearts, Scottish Government ministers also believe in a mixture of universal and targeted provision. I heard rather a good speech from Derek Mackay at the early years conference on Monday. I wrote down some of the phrases that he uttered during that speech, because I thought that they were striking: “sometimes universal”; “sometimes targeted”; “just evidence that”. I wrote them down because we will adopt precisely such an approach in our review. Alex Neil came to exactly the same conclusion a couple years ago in relation to the central heating programme, when he changed the universal provision that we introduced and made it targeted, and I do not criticise him for doing so.

For the avoidance of doubt, we will consider, openly and transparently, contentious issues such as the continuation of universal entitlement, as Campbell Christie urged us to do, and in doing so we will avoid the polarised terms that he warned against, and which we have heard in spades from the SNP this afternoon. The SNP is in denial about the real world of political choices and is failing to recognise that every specific decision has an opportunity cost. That is a central rule of politics, especially at a time when budgets are going in one direction and demographics in the opposite.

None of the universal entitlements that are being discussed today was a linchpin of the post-war welfare state in the way that the NHS is - which is not to say that they are not desirable or that I do not have a particular personal commitment to some of them, such as free personal care. That will not surprise people, given that I chaired the care development group and introduced the legislation. However, I fully accept that all that must be reviewed. As we look around Scotland today, many other desirable objectives are before us.

Patrick Harvie:
I am very grateful to Malcolm Chisholm for giving way. He said clearly that he supports universalism when the evidence shows that it is beneficial, but not on the basis of how much money is in the budget, so will the Labour review look not just at shifting away from universalism, but at shifting towards progressive revenue raising?

Malcolm Chisholm:
The answer to that last bit is obviously yes, but it is still a flight from the real world to say that we cannot take account of the overall budget that we have. To do so is to engage in more fantasy politics. We might wish that we had more resources, and the SNP might tell us - although we do not believe it - that it would have limitless resources in an independent Scotland, but at the moment we must deal with the resources that we have.

As I was saying before Patrick Harvie’s intervention, there are many other desirable objectives that I am sure many members of the Parliament share, such as the new ambitions that we have on the early-years agenda, which has grown in providence over the past few years; I welcome that.

Other desirable objectives include the abolition of child poverty, ending homelessness, introducing the living wage, and providing services to the most disadvantaged in our communities and giving them the opportunities that others have but which they do not. Politics is about making hard choices between competing desirable objectives in the light of the available resources. That is the real situation that we confront. It is not the case that some of the entitlements that we are discussing today are undesirable - for goodness’ sake, we introduced most of them when we were in Government. Of course they are desirable, but everything is relative.

We have heard from members on the Labour benches, led by Johann Lamont, of all the problems that we have in our disadvantaged communities and more generally. It is a matter of weighing up the competing desirable objectives and deciding which are most desirable for us within the current financial situation. We have taken that ground-breaking step: it is time that others moved on and took the same step.
October 3rd 2012